Dazzle Ships: Optical Illusions at Sea

May 7, 2013

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Anon, photograph of the USS West Mahomet in dazzle camouflage, 1918. Courtesy US Naval Historical and Heritage Command, NH 1733

Anon, photograph of the USS West Mahomet in dazzle camouflage, 1918. Courtesy US Naval Historical and Heritage Command, NH 1733

We’re usually on the lookout for ways that visual elements can make communication clearer. During WWI, the American and British naval forces found a way to use line, shape and color to obscure information — specifically, the location of their war ships. The Dazzle Ships, as they were called, emerged in the 1910s as a solution to very real problem. German U-Boats were picking off American and British ships while crossing the Atlantic ocean. Attempts to help the ships blend in to the seascapes by painting them dusky shades of blue or grey failed due to the reality of changing weather conditions and smoke stacks made them virtually impossible to camouflage. 03a6495578ca32f172a3d13fd17c09ca-origScientist Sir John Graham Kerr described the confuse-not-conceal principle in a letter to Winston Churchill in 1914. “It is essential to break up the regularity of outline and this can be easily effected by strongly contrasting shades,” said Kerr. “A giraffe or zebra or jaguar looks extraordinarily conspicious in a museum but in nature, especially when moving is wonderfully difficult to pick up.” British and American navies began painting their ships with zig-zaging lines, checkered patterns and in bold, bright colors to create optical effects. While the Dazzle Ships were very noticeable on the ocean’s horizon, their odd markings made it difficult  to decipher the outline of the ship or which direction the ship was facing. Due to the rangefinding technology being used at the time, the German U-Boats would find it difficult to accurately calculate the trajectories of their torpedoes. The torpedo gunner’s margin of error for hitting a Dazzle Ship was quite low. Dazzle painting could throw off an experienced submariner by as much as 55 degrees. Here’s a great gallery of Dazzle Ship images.